Broadcast December 26, 2020
Featuring: Lee Warren, Sara Carter
In this episode, Earthaven member and School of Integrated Living co-founder Lee Warren shares what she has learned living in community for 27 years.
Lee has lived at Earthaven for over 20 years, co-founded the Village Terraces neighborhood and also the School of Integrated Living. She has many years of experience with farming, both with Imani farm at Earthaven and as Executive Director at a sustainable agriculture non-profit in Asheville.
The podcast host is Earthaven member Sara Carter.
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Faculty and SOIL Co-Founder
Lee is a sustainability professional with twenty five years of experience envisioning, designing, and living innovative solutions to organic food systems, intentional community, and sustainability education. She’s been living in rural, land-based community since 1995 and at Earthaven Ecovillage since 2000.
Podcast Host, Tour Guide, Faculty
Sara strives to live life in a way that feels authentic and fulfilling, showing up in her community and the wider world with vulnerability and intention. She serves those in her life with presence, fine listening skills, insight and capacity to hold depth, grief and the myriad complications of life. Her life is endlessly enriched through her work with the young children of Earthaven.
Whatever I thought was possible about a land based life, about living a life of integrity with myself and others. This is a very long, slow journey towards sanity, because really what I was handed and what everyone else around me was handed was a set of tools that weren’t all that useful.
Hello, everyone, my name is Debbie Lienhart from the School of Integrated Living at Earthaven Ecovillage. Welcome to the Integrated Living podcast, where we explore integration within ourselves with the people around us and with the planet. Welcome to this episode where host Sara Carter talks to School of Integrated Living co-founder and Earthaven member Lee Warren. In this episode, we hear what Lee has learned after living half her life in community.
Thank you for being here.
Thank you so much for having me.
Do you care to introduce yourself?
Sure. My name is Lee Warren and I came to Earthaven in the late 90s with a passion for what I thought at the time was sustainability and food production and village life and learned a whole ton over the last 20 years. And I still live at Earthaven part time and also in Asheville, North Carolina.
And can you tell us about your search for community? What drew you out of the more typical lifestyle?
Yeah, I think, when I was a child, I grew up in an immigrant family with grandparents on both sides, having immigrated from Italy and from Eastern Europe. And I had what is now known as a food culture. We had regular meals that we shared with extended family. And I grew up with different languages being spoken in my grandparents’ homes in what felt like a warm, close, extended family embrace.
And, when I went to college and even in high school, I realized the world is a little disjointed and fragmented and slightly crazy. And at the same time, I was being pushed by my family values and by the culture to move out into the world more fully. I worked in a corporate environment in my 20s after I graduated from school, although I had the great fortune to backpack through Europe and learn a whole bunch about how other cultures operate besides ours and just the whole time, this sort of gnawing feeling that something wasn’t right, that our institutions and our systems weren’t leading us to a holistic or cause-based or sane way of being in the world.
And so I have been a seeker from an early time. And I remember my 20s, I had a pretty compartmentalized life. I was working in a corporate environment and I was going away to do yoga retreats for the health of my body and mind. And I was reading radical progressive news like the Nation. And I was feeling like my life was sort of scattered and pulled apart. And I remember reading in Utne Reader at the time, which was a magazine, still is a magazine.
And in the back there was an ad for the Communities Directory, which was at that time in print. This would have been in the mid-early 90s. It was in print and you could order away for it. So I ordered away for one and it would have the listings of all these communities and these sort of cross referencing indices to figure out the kind of things that one would be looking for. And I was really drawn at the time to the FEC, the Federation for Egalitarian Communities.
And I ended up at Twin Oaks and ACORN community, which are in central Virginia outside of Louisa, and learned a whole bunch there. And then I was really looking for something specific, which was like a family-based sort of tribe that I could build a life with that shared my values. And I found that in a group that was here at Earthaven forming a neighborhood. And I joined them and we decided to build in the center of the village.
And Village Terraces cohousing neighborhood is what got birthed out of that. So I was one of the original five folks that created this neighborhood, although I’m not a founder of the community itself, which started in 1994. I came in about 1999.
And were your expectations for community much different than what you found on the ground?
My expectations, oh, yes. That’s a great conversation. I was ambitious and idealistic and fiery and passionate. And I thought, gosh, we could just, like, let me at it and we’ll have this thing solved in five or ten years and on every level of my life. Relationally, emotionally, personally, physically, in farming and all of the things I threw myself into, I realized, wow, you know, whatever I thought was possible about a land-based life, about living a life of integrity with myself and others. This is a very long, slow journey towards sanity, because really what I was handed and what everyone else around me was handed was a set of tools that weren’t all that useful.
I had never taken a relationship class in my life, never taken a class about how to deal with weeds in the garden or how to get the chickens rounded up if they got out of their fencing or just basic practical ways of how to live a life that was in harmony with the world around me and the people around me. So there was a lot of mistakes. There was a lot of disappointment. I’m now in my early 50s.
So I’ve been living in this village and also other intentional communities for half my life. Twenty-seven years or so. And I’m now starting to realize just how little I know even now and how much there is to learn about everything we put our attention to, because unfortunately, our culture is vapid and shallow and distracting. And so the things that are really sort of deep and meaningful and life-giving, they take a while to learn. And if we’re just getting started in our 20s, we need lifetimes to get there.
And a lot of unlearning as well.
And when I got here, it seemed as if you were farming pretty much full time or maybe from my very outsider’s, new work exchangers perspective, you seemed to be maybe equally half time farming and half time in relationship, really beautifully in relationship with people from what I saw.
Yeah, farming was central for sure to my life in that food and food production. I think it’s sort of in my genes coming from a sort of food culture based family.
And everybody, if you go back a couple of decades, is from a food-based family. Right. Our whole entire world comes from farmers. Right. 95 or more percent of us have ancestors that were farming. And so I think there’s something that was in touch, something in me that was in touch with that and food production. I was also at the time really focusing on high-calorie, nutrient-dense food that I wanted to get some place that I knew where it was coming from.
And that was my own farm. So, yes, farming was central. And I was also patching a life together in different ways. They call it now the gig economy. I was working with the Southeast Women’s Herbal Conference as a program director, and I was really involved in forming committees and governance structures within the village. And I had a lot of privilege in that.
I had a partner, an intimate partner, life partner who was quite competent and was also able to piece together a life and make money so that we could both survive, build our homes and also contribute to the development of the community. So it was a multifaceted, very engaging, sometimes high energy and high drama life.
Yeah, it sounds complicated. Sounds like a lot of balls in the air at any one time and very different from that compartmentalized life you name.
Yes, very integrated. Very different. Lots of balls in the air. Quite exhausting. And I think going back to what I said earlier, which is if I had been less ambitious and maybe less idealistic, more realistic about how long things would take, I would have slowed the process down and enjoyed it more.
I think there was just an urgency or a hurry or an intensity that actually is a symptom of a toxic culture. Right. I think that as we get more embodied and more connected, we realize we don’t have to be so intense. Right. I think one of the one of the big lessons I learned in my life is not to mistake intensity for intimacy. And that intimacy means on every level, how can I have a more intimate relationship with everything I’m doing, with everything around me, with my goals in my life? And so these days, just through sheer learning and integrating all that wisdom, I try to make myself less busy and less intense and more intimate, more intimate with whatever I’m choosing.
That’s beautiful. Can you say more about what integrated living means to you, please?
Yeah, there’s a holism, right, this idea of integral means that there’s a holistic perspective. And I think that’s one thing that village life has taught me, is that everything is connected. Right. And it is coming from that earlier part of my life where I felt there was a compartmentalization or fragmentation of how can things be holistic? Everything touches everything else.
The butterfly effect, when the butterfly flaps its wings in one continent, it’s felt by a breeze in another continent that this idea that we’re deeply connected to everything we do, everything we say. And so how do we live sort of a sacred life right. There’s some folks, native people, who call it the Red Road. How do we walk the beauty way?
How do we walk as integrated in our life as we can, given the tools that we have and given the faulty, frail human beings that we are, especially most of us coming from such a fragmented place. So, the School of Integrated Living, which was started by NikiAnne Feinberg and myself, it started with this idea that when interns or work exchangers or residents come to Earthaven, they’re not very in touch with the skills that they’re going to need to be successful.
And that is the idea of the basics of how to take care of oneself, even cooking one’s food, tending the land, using a shovel, anything that requires the physical body. Because oftentimes in our culture, education is sort of cut off from the neck down. Its head based. And so how do I even prepare myself a meal? How do I dig this trench that I’m being asked to dig? How do I work with animals? And also this idea of folks get thrown pretty quickly into a very complex set of social situations.
And so how do they how do they know themselves and how do they know others so they can navigate in a mature way, especially when they haven’t had a robust toolbox. So that was our intention early — to create this entry program that would help people get the basics of this kind of life. And it’s still doing that.
That’s fantastic. And so in your life here, it seems as though you’ve moved from a lot of your work being on the ground and in the soil to maybe more organizational and educational. Can you tell us about that?
Yeah, one of the things that I didn’t realize early on, because it’s easy to feel strong and capable in one’s 20s and 30s, is that I had a long-standing chronic illness, which ended up being Lyme disease. I was born and raised in Connecticut, where there’s sort of ground zero for Lyme disease. And so I was having what Chinese medicine calls deficiency and symptoms of chronic illness for a long time.
And so I pushed through it a lot because this life required so much physical labor, which I actually really love. I love being in my body. I love being physical. I loved milking cows. I loved building our house and our cohousing neighborhood. And as I was getting older, it was getting harder to do that. And also because the economics of small scale, sustainable agriculture are a little bit dire.
So at some point in my 40s, I realized I was broke and burnt out and I took a full time job with a sustainable ag organization and really shifted my focus to helping young farmers realize what it takes and how not to get broke and burned out. Right. Sort of offering the educational opportunities that that I would have needed and wanted at the time to be able to be a sustainable long term. Farming isn’t sexy anymore. After five years, you know, maybe even after one year.
It’s hard, it’s sloggy, it’s muddy, it’s difficult. Animals die. Crops fail. And so how does a farm family, independent farmers, how do they make that work in the long term? And I think that’s equally true in a situation like Earthaven, because not only is farming hard, but community living is hard, hard, rewarding for sure, and challenging to navigate. And so in part because I came to Earthaven early on, there was a learning curve, an epic, epic learning curve on every level. Relationally, emotionally, physically, in farming and everything that we did. So there was just a lot of pressure. And I did think I burnt myself out pretty significantly. And so I’ve taken the last seven years to be running an organization based on sustainable ag. And all through that time I’ve been integrating all of my experiences. And I think of myself as a little bit of a baby elder at this point, which is I can’t do the physical work quite as much.
And even though I’m way, way, way better from the Lyme disease and feel stronger than I have in a long time, I’m not able to do full time physical work. And so how do I take some of the wisdom that I’ve gained and integrated in my own life and pass that on? For many years, I was reluctant to consider myself an educator because I thought, gosh, what do I know? I’m constantly learning and things are constantly changing and I have no right to tell anybody else what to do. And many of us have felt that about Earthaven for a long time, which is we have not got it figured out in the slightest way. Some things we do well and there’s plenty of other things that we don’t do well.
I often talk about writing a book about what not to do. I can certainly tell people what not to do. And I’ve joked about that for years. But at the same time, that actually might be a valuable book. Right. And so even if we don’t have a clear, strong direction or if I don’t, I can say, well, some of these things worked. Some of these things didn’t work. And I can just tell people about my own personal experience.
And there’s something there that can build the matrix towards where we want to go. And if someone else can learn from my experience, that’s fabulous. And I can still be very in touch with the fact that I don’t know what I’m doing. We don’t know what we’re doing, that if we lose touch with the fact that it’s all a mystery, we really do lose touch with our humanity.
Yeah, of course. I wonder if you could speak more about that burn out. It seems that certainly in the wider culture, we’re all geared towards burnout. And it seems that in some ways in community, we’re all also uniquely set up for burning out. Can you talk some more about your burn out and how you recovered?
Yeah, I’m not sure all the ingredients. I certainly think growing up a product of our culture for sure. I think being a woman in our culture and needing to prove something additional, I think, you know, being so disconnected from land-based living that I thought maybe it was easy. That’s one of the pieces of arrogance as white people, as, you know, first world peoples, as the modern peoples, even as urban peoples. Like we have this idea that if some folks, some maybe illiterate or indigenous or people are doing it, then it can’t be that hard.
This is our arrogance. This is the level of arrogance that we’ve gotten to, which is like actually these systems, these land-based integrated systems are generations and eons in the making. And some of these belief systems and ways of being and stewarding the land are deeply, deeply rooted in a way of life that we have demolished, really. And so what a huge lesson for me personally and many of us to learn that we are so far from having the toolkit and the skill set and even the attitude or intention of what it takes to create this life.
And so we are throwing ourselves at this project. I’ll speak for myself, throwing myself at this project. And there’s been a lot of, quote unquote accomplishments. I mean, I created a whole cohousing neighborhood with gardens and orchards and a farm and produced a bunch of food over many years at Earthaven. And at the same time, like, what is the legacy of that? Right. Can this be continued in a holistic and harmonious way? Hopefully, hopefully there’s aspects of this. But I do think I came to a point in my midlife where I thought, what is this for? What am I doing this for? I’m personally struggling, broke and burnt out and the culture at large is getting just more and more insane. Right. So that really prompted, I think, what can happen at midlife for many people is a deep introspection. I mean, living in intentional community, living in this ecovillage has been my life’s vocation. It’s been what I’ve committed myself to. And some of those skills are transferable out into the world. Some aren’t. And there’s a certain existential angst that can come around.
Are we making a difference? Right. Are we making a difference? And I think the answer to that question is very contextual. It’s very contextual. You know, we’re not reaching millions of people like some advertisement during the Super Bowl. Right. We’re not we’re not front and center on YouTube. And there’s something authentic about what we’re trying to do.
And so I think that people that do seek out the community, the village, these courses, this learning are really primed for this. And who knows that those folks will make a huge difference maybe in this project and maybe in their own projects wherever they are. So I think I’m not completely through my own existential reconciliation of my choices on my life. And I’m also far enough in to realize both are true. It’s pointless and it’s crucial. And it’s still and always mysterious, still and always mysterious.
I’m curious what you see as what Earthaven does well and where Earthaven could really improve.
Yeah, that’s a great question. Well, when you think about the three pieces of sustainability, which is the sort of economic, environmental and social, I think what Earthaven has tried to do is right the wrongs of our larger culture that has an excess focus through the capitalistic industrial model on economics and has tried to sort of swing the pendulum towards the environmental and the social.
And so, Earthaven was founded on this pretty intense and maybe somewhat extreme ecological mandate that we would live in this place and not be on the grid and move towards our own food production and do as little damage to the forest system as possible, among other things. And so Earthaven really does live by strong ecological values. Now, one might argue that they’re somewhat too strong, that because they’re so extreme that it’s disallowed us to be able to grow with more looseness. So that’s sort of inherently the double edged sword or two sides of the same coin, but definitely a commitment to this ecological life where we’re stewarding and with our limited knowledge.
We’ve been stewarding the best way we know how and have been making lots of mistakes and, yeah, doing our best to carve a life out of this piece of land. The other area where the pendulum has swung away from economics is towards the social aspect. So Earthaven has done a fabulous job creating a social safety net. I would say a place where people can feel like a chosen family is here and they’ll be cared for. We had five folks in our community die over the course of three years from 2015 to 2018.
And we had, for example, all of these folks buried with home funerals and home burials. And three of these folks died at home and four of them were cared for as they declined. And this was epitome for me of the beauty that Earthaven can create and the social world, which is I think we have some evolutionary programming in us that knows what to do at the end of life and we really stepped up into this incredible and extraordinary experience of caring for our beloveds.
And these beloveds were of all ages, but the ones that were elders were not partnered, not married. And so they were more available to the whole community or to a small group of people and then the whole community gathering to support them in their decline. So that’s one example of the social relational bond being reknit in a group that can see each other and see the needs that are amongst the group. The definition of an ecovillage is full featured human scale and what those mean. So a full featured human scale project that is trying to integrate itself in a sustainable way.
And what full featured means is that we don’t have to leave the community in order to get many or most of our needs met, including for worship and for food and for childcare and for entertainment. And human scale means that we know each other by name, we know each other by face, and we know the basic components of each other’s lives. And so with a group this size, which in our whole valley, which means partly the homeowner’s association, partly neighbors, were probably over one hundred people, one hundred and twenty five people or so that we are there for each other.
And that plays out in large and small ways. That is extraordinary, really extraordinary. And within that, I could talk endlessly about the challenges and the conflicts of living so closely and in human scale. And ultimately it is a balm. It is a beautiful balm for our weary souls who are coming from very isolated, lonely and disconnected culture.
And do you mean to say that any isolated, weary soul who arrives on our shore will find the ultimate embrace of family?
The great question. Yeah, I’m working on an educational program that has to do with emotional relational social intelligence and what it takes to be in community.
And that’s a very important question, because I don’t really like to use the metaphor of an oasis, but in some ways, the sort of ship, what sinks the ship and what floats the ship, because Earthaven is a fragile project in some ways.
I mean, we’re all here by our own force of desire and belief in something bigger. And it must work for us in our lives. And so sometimes we feel overwhelmed. This overwhelm is a huge piece of what’s happening at Earthaven and stretched too thin. And the project is important and also tender. And so when people come here, they have to be prepared to be as much in their adult selves as they can. And really, we look for people to contribute more than they detract. And that’s a tall order. We are not in any way, shape or form a bastion for misfits from the culture.
I mean, although many of us, most of us are misfits, we are not sort of stable and strong with enough longevity to take in the huddled masses. In a way, we I like to say that some people come here and they’re so trained to see institutions as the parent or the authority, and they sometimes do and come and project that onto Earthaven. But what I like to encourage people to do is see Earthaven as the child Earthaven is the baby here. It is the it is the infant project that we’re all tending to. And we need strong and healthy people, emotionally and physically. And we have members of all ages and stages. And that multigenerational pieces is wonderful and beautiful. And every single person on that spectrum is contributing a significant amount. So it’s not for the faint of heart and it’s not a refuge at this point. Maybe in 400 years it will be. But at this point, we need people to contribute a significant amount and also like to encourage people to contribute wherever they are.
Our culture has so few safety nets that folks with mental illness or folks who see themselves outside of the culture, which so many of us are grappling with: where do I go, where is my place, where’s my home, where’s my family? And yeah, I want to suggest that we need to do many, many of these projects in many contexts so that we can come together really. And Earthaven is a wonderful place for that. And people have to be pretty healthy to be here.
I see that. And before we close, will you tell us some about what your future looks like if you know where you head from here?
Yeah, well, I’m excited about teaching these three courses this winter through the School of Integrated Living and Culture’s Edge. And I’m working on writing a bunch of articles, maybe a book. And I’m also doing some consulting in the corporate non-profit world around team building, because all of my experience here at Earthaven has given me a lot of fodder for how to get along and how not to get along with people.
I still look forward to reading your book. Thank you. Thanks so much for talking with me today.
It’s been such a pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.
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Have a great day.